The brilliance of Desert Island Discs on BBC Radio 4


Perhaps the coolest show on the planet is BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, which premiered on BBC radio in 1942. Created by Roy Plomley, the format is about as simple as you can get. A guest ‘castaway’ is invited to choose the eight records they would take with them to a desert island.  In addition to the 8 records, guests are also asked to choose both a book and a ‘luxury’ item on the outside chance that would be marooned indefinitely.

Amazingly, the British Library discovered a number of editions of Desert Island Discs in their archive last year including 67 episodes that were missing in whole or in part from the BBC’s own archive. As they set about the herculean task of digitizing the lost tapes, unfortunately, in some cases, only the speech could been saved. Working with the BBC’s Desert Island Discs team, the BBC Gramophone Library and the BBC’s written archives at Caversham, where transcripts of each program have been preserved, the restoration process began. Salvaged were some amazing programs featuring Princess Grace of Monaco, Sir Alec Guinness and screenwriter, Dennis Potter.

Here are a couple of quick gems I found digging through the archives…

Jimmy Stewart – 1974

Book – musical arrangements by Dave Brubeck;  Luxury item – piano

Alfred Hitchcock – 1959

Book – Mrs Beeton’s Household Management;  Luxury item – Continental railway timetable

Paul McCartney – 1982

Paul McCartney appeared on the 40th anniversary edition of BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, filmed as part of an Arena Documentary. He discussed how he’d cope with loneliness on a desert island  and his poignant choice of Desert island Disc. His book? Linda’s Pictures by Linda McCartney. His luxury item? A guitar, of course.

As you can imagine, there have been some pretty interesting ‘luxury’ items named over the years, many from some very familiar names in the British television world. Not surprisingly, Benny Hill wanted to bring a film camera, Eric Clapton, a guitar, and Rolling Stones’ drummer, Charlie Watts, had to have drumsticks. Peter Sellers wanted snorkeling equipment while everyone’s favorite Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) would bring along the Encyclopedia Britannica and some sun-barrier cream and a straw hat. In 2006, the current Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron, wanted to bring a crate of scotch whiskey and David Tennant admitted that he couldn’t do without a solar DVD player loaded with the seven series of The West Wing. Like Eric Clapton, Martin Clunes’ (Doc Martin) must have was an electric guitar.

Some familiar ‘castaways’ from the world of British comedy…

Patricia Routledge – varieties of tea and a tea-making outfit
John Cleese – a life-sized model of Margaret Thatcher and a baseball bat
Felicity Kendal – Plays and Prefaces by George Bernard Shaw and Perfume
Terry Jones – The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer and a pencil and paper
Rowan Atkinson – Uncle Fred in Springtime by P. G. Wodehouse and a car
Lenny Henry – Catch 22 by Joseph Heller and graphic novels (comics)
Geoffrey Palmer – a fly fishing rod (having interviewed him twice, this was no surprise)
Dawn French – Her daughter’s teddy bear (Awww….)

If you have more than a few hours of spare time, do yourself a favor and peruse the 70+ years of Desert Island Discs archives.